Even before the green flag flew on Sunday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway, the weekend had already been packed with the unexpected. It all started on Friday night with a Truck race that flat fell short of expectations, colder temperatures playing havoc with Goodyear’s tire combination. The result was a second groove that never proved viable over the course of 147 laps, leaving much of NASCAR’s most competitive series a single-file parade. Saturday gave fans more of the same, as they saw a dominant Kyle Busch get beat at the same track he’d won five consecutive races at.
But on Sunday, it only took a few laps before Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 turned into what PR staff at the track referred to as “an Eddie Gossage dream.” Conventions were shattered, tempers boiled over, and one of the all-time greats fell short. There was nothing predictable about this Sprint Cup race. In fact, it seemed as if the wild card wasn’t played at Talladega at all…it was tossed on the table at Texas.
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It was only about 10 laps into Sunday’s 500-miler before Robby Gordon started beating and banging on David Gilliland’s Ford, seemingly hellbent on wrecking the No. 38 car that had challenged… and failed… to take Gordon’s No. 7 car’s spot in the top 35 in owner points. Yet despite FRM having won both the last few battles and the war, it was Gordon playing the role of the driver over 100 markers out of a locked-in Daytona 500 berth with three races left to earn it.
Fortunately for Front Row Motorsports, Gilliland got away from Gordon unscathed, and soldiered on to a 29th-place day. Unfortunately, and unexpectedly, that was the only Front Row car that would see the end of the AAA Texas 500. A team whose business strategy is simply to survive, one that has persevered and finished race after after race despite being outclassed in terms of equipment and resources, had both Dave Blaney and Travis Kvapil bow to engine failures within the first 50 miles. To put the team having two engine failures in the same race in perspective, the FRM organization has had three engine failures in the past _two seasons_ amongst all its cars coming into this weekend.
Unpredictability then surged to the _front_ of the field.
When the yellow flag flew on lap 192 after Martin Truex, Jr. pounded the turn 3 wall (turn 1 was the only barrier that didn’t have NAPA know-how splattered all over by day’s end), fans were left to scratch their heads as to how over in turn 2, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton’s machines were suddenly motionless scrap heaps, victims of a wreck no one saw.
They were then left to scratch their heads as to how replays seemed to indicate that… Jeff Burton had taken someone out?! But it was there, clear as a whistle; the Caterpillar Chevrolet had turned left into Gordon’s No. 24, and pushed it into the fence with the precision of a piledriver.
The only part of the incident that was clear was what happened when the TMS jumbotrons were all honed in on Jeff Gordon, as he walked with a glare in his eyes and a kick in his step towards Burton. Instantly, 100,000+ people were transported back to Bristol in March of 2006, remembering how finishing-school graduate Gordon had suddenly exited his wrecked car to make a beeline for Matt Kenseth, shoving the stunned former champion before cooler heads stepped in. That same Jeff Gordon walked what seemed like an eternity down the backstretch, Burton watching his every step.
Gordon unloaded, throwing everything he had short of assassination at “the Mayor.”
This confrontation was so much more than an unlikely cast of characters. It was two of NASCAR’s most respected and well-mannered figures acting like Brad and Carl fans that ran into each other at a bar just outside of the Gateway International Raceway. This moment was two drivers that have been mere afterthoughts in both this afternoon’s race and the Chase coming to blows as if the pistols and the Cup were actually on the line for either of them.
The boys weren’t having at it… the sport’s elder gentlemen were.
(On a side note, both of these drivers handled the situation like men. Blunt answers to the media as to what happened and why. No words minced. And fighting without the benefit of helmets – taking notes, Happy and Juan?)
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Perhaps the only sign that the sky wasn’t falling somewhere over Fort Worth was that the Meltdown of the Day Award went to God’s gift to racing himself, Kyle Busch. After spinning himself out on lap 160, Busch was forced to limp back to the pits with a flat tire, unable to risk destroying a fender or quarterpanel on his car even with the pace car… and the rest of the field… gaining ground.
Busch made it to pit road, got his new tires, and at first glance appeared to have just beaten the pace car off pit road to stay on the lead lap. NASCAR’s glance said otherwise, as the No. 18 was penalized not just for speeding, but speeding to save a lap. The result, a one-lap penalty, triggered an outburst that was profane by Kyle’s own standards, a tirade that culminated with Busch, on an in-car camera, flipping the bird to a NASCAR official.
“They [NASCAR] always get the last word,” crew chief Dave Rogers reminded his driver when he first told him to serve a one-lap penalty. And they got the last word this time, penalizing Kyle two more laps for “unsportsmanlike conduct.” More profanity, screaming and banging on the steering wheel later, Busch remarked, “I’m the only one who will stand up to NASCAR,” as if that was a justification for earning the moniker “Kryle.”
Where this story went off its familiar tracks was Rogers’ reaction. This time, the crew chief didn’t choose to let the driver vent. He pushed back, urging Kyle to stop because he was undoing all the hard work of his team. It wasn’t anything like a Eury putting Dale Jr. in his place, but it was the most resistance a crew chief has put up to Kyle Busch’s temper in recent memory.
It gets better. Though Kyle’s breakdown was the most emotional and turbulent of the day, it was far from the most significant.
That award didn’t belong to NASCAR’s bitchiest driver. It belonged to one of the greatest crew chiefs the sport has ever seen.
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On a day that saw Denny Hamlin win the race, and take the lead in the Chase, crew chief Chad Knaus never lost his cool. However on this day, that composure and cunning on the pit box screwed the pooch. Not like at Martinsville, where late-race adjustments saw the No. 48 car fading just as Hamlin surged to score yet another grandfather clock; this misstep may not be correctable.
With the No. 48 car running top 5 lap times, yet mired in traffic due to several mishaps on pit road, Knaus made the decision to bench his pit crew. With Jeff Gordon out of the race after his lap 192 brawl with Burton, the Rainbow Warriors were deployed to the No. 48 war wagon, with the Lowe’s crew sent to tear down the No. 24 pit box instead.
On the stopwatch, the move was brilliant. Ripping off stops that were threatening to break the 12-second barrier, Johnson’s pit crew was again the class of the field. Problem is, the on-track side of the equation went south. For the last 50 miles, while Denny Hamlin was furiously battling with Matt Kenseth for the win, Johnson was fighting tooth and nail to stay in the top 10 with Paul Menard. Everything that got thrown at the No. 48 car didn’t get the job done. By race’s end, it was still about a 10th-place race car. There’s a reason Chad Knaus apologized to his driver over the radio after this race was over…the car simply wasn’t there.
No matter how much anyone will deny it, there’s no way to argue that both briefing a new pit crew on the car and race at hand while dealing with sending a four-time champion crew to hit the showers early didn’t weigh in on Knaus. What happened on Sunday was simple; Knaus sought to make a statement as much as he did to improve performance, relegating his hand-picked crew to packing duty. More than anything, he took the on-track part of this race for granted. With Johnson driving hard, Knaus threw all of his efforts to fixing the pit crew.
In the end, it didn’t matter how fast Gordon’s crew was… because the car wasn’t there for Four-Time.
What’s more, the No. 48 team is now in uncharted territory with two races to go. Each of the last four years they’ve won this thing, by this point in the season they’ve been ahead and rallying around the flag to play defense. This time when they head to Phoenix, they’ve got to go on the offensive. Different approach, different mindset, different ballgame.
No matter how much Jimmie and Chad will insist that “aw shucks, we just go out and try to win every weekend;” in order to pull this off, they’re now going to have one of two options.
1.) Poach the No. 24 crew for the next few weeks and hang their teammate out to dry, or
2.) Ask the No. 48 crew to shake off the biggest slap in the face a pit crew can endure and do something that’s never been accomplished in the Chase era; to come from behind with two races to go to win the Cup.
That’s a tall enough order on its own before adding in that TV cameras captured everything from the Lowe’s crew being sent out of their stall to Knaus referring to the No. 24 and 48 teams as one, as if the crews were suddenly interchangeable parts. That’s not a bedrock psyche for a team to be in when facing a gargantuan challenge.
It was a bad day for the Lowe’s team, but kicking out the crew that had gotten them this far compounded the problem. Maybe the No. 48 crew will get angry and be out to prove something at Phoenix… or maybe they’re broken, and Johnson’s title streak soon will be as well.
The one constant to take from the current situation is that Hamlin’s No. 11 team is piping hot, and they’re hungry. They actually have the look and swagger to suggest the No. 48’s reign may be nearing its end. These truly are untested waters. And with the move he made on pit road Sunday, Knaus took his battle-tested crew from a proven commodity, having a bad day to an unknown. The captain of this ship is not only sailing by the stars now; he threw the instruments overboard.
In whose hand did that wild card land? It’s hard to say. As Chad Knaus was quoted post-race, “Everything’s on the table [now]….Everything.”
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